Very few remember and even fewer have seen Separate Tables, the 1958 parlor drama with Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Wendy Hiller. And yet this constipated, dialogue-driven film, directed by Delbert Mann (Marty) and based on a pair of one-act plays by Terence Rattigan, was nominated for seven Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actress (Kerr), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Black and White), and Best Dramatic or Comedy Score) and won two (Niven for Best Actor, Hiller for Best Supporting Actress).
Separate Tables is exactly the kind of solemn, stiff-necked parlor drama that was often regarded as Oscar bait in the mid-to-late ’50s. Decorum and public appearances undermined by dark secrets and notions of perverse sexuality, etc. Shudder! Erections and dampenings that dare not speak their name, or words to that effect.
Talk about “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” etc. Two years before Separate Tables appeared a creepy, low-budget sci-fi thriller called Invasion of the Body Snatchers opened and was promptly ignored by the highbrows. Four years earlier The Creature From The Black Lagoon was greeted with similar indifference if not disdain. Today a pair of direct descendants, Get Out and The Shape of Water, are Best Picture nominees, and there’s a better-than-even (though admittedly dwindling) chance that Shape will take the Big Prize.
Yesterday I received a hilarious, spot-on essay by the great David Thomson — about Separate Tables initially, but also about how the appeal and some of the “Academy inflation” of this 60-year-old film are echoed in I, Tonya and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Consider this excerpt especially: “About fifteen minutes into I Tonya, on being bowled over by the vicious hangdog look of Allison Janney’s mother, the toxic lines slipping like smoke from the fag on her lips, I was ready to give her the supporting actress Oscar on the spot. Twenty minutes later I was bored with her because she was still doing the same bitter schtick. She’s an act, a show-stopper, the sort of hag who would get a round of applause as she appears on-stage, severing any prospect of dramatic truth.
“It’s not that Janney is less than skilled, or hasn’t paid her dues for decades. She’s a clever old pro so give her the Oscar. But let’s abandon the myth that she is presenting a real ‘deplorable’ instead of saying, ‘Aren’t deplorables a riot?'”
Here’s the whole brilliant piece (the first 17 paragraphs about Separate Tables, and the rest about Janney and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya and McDormand in Three Billboards):
“I found myself watching Separate Tables on Turner Classic Movies. There it was, offered with the seemingly unassailable claim that it had been nominated for Best Picture in 1958 along with six other nominations. It even had two wins, and I remembered that one of them was for David Niven playing a bogus Major. I had seen the film in 1958 and flinched at it even then (the bogus business was all fusspot), in a year that included Vertigo, Touch of Evil, Bonjour Tristesse, Man of the
West, The Tarnished Angels and many others that still seem of value.